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Ex-comptroller faces 60 new felony counts of theft

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(AP file photo)
Grand jurors in Lee County on Thursday indicted Rita Crundwell, the former comptroller for Dixon. Each count accuses her of stealing more than $100,000 in government property and carries a possible punishment of up to 30 years in prison. Before Thursday, Crundwell had faced just a single count of wire fraud in a federal case. She had pleaded not guilty.

ST. LOUIS – The former comptroller of a northern Illinois town was indicted Thursday on 60 felony theft counts linked to her suspected swindling of more than $53 million in taxpayer funds to support her lavish lifestyle and horse-breeding operation.

Until Thursday, Rita Crundwell, 59, had faced only one federal charge of wire fraud under initial suspicion that she bilked millions of dollars from Dixon while drawing an $80,000 a year salary. She was arrested in April, and has pleaded not guilty.

The new charges were returned by a Lee County grand jury. Each count accuses her of stealing more than $100,000 in government property from January 2010 through April, although authorities believe Crundwell’s theft may date to 1990. Each felony is punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon said Thursday federal prosecutors in recent weeks gave his office the go-ahead to pursue state charges with the caveat that local prosecutors limit their inquiry of Crundwell’s alleged misconduct from 2010 until her arrest, leaving the rest to federal prosecutors and diminishing any potential of double jeopardy.

“Do I feel limited by that? Absolutely not. I have no heartburn about it at all, and I think it’s the right thing to do,” Dixon told The Associated Press by telephone. “As you can see, we found plenty of fertile ground to investigate.”

Prosecutors have alleged that Crundwell siphoned the millions of dollars into a secret bank account. Court papers have said the pilfering went undetected for years until another staffer became suspicious and discovered a secret bank account.

The enormity of the alleged theft – dwarfing the city’s annual budget of $20 million – left many in Dixon puzzled. Crundwell has been comptroller since the early 1980s and handled all of the finances for Dixon, the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan and a small city along a picturesque vein of the Mississippi River.

Federal agents who last spring searched her home, office and farms in Dixon and Beloit, Wis., seized seven trucks and trailers, three pickup trucks, a $2.1 million motor home and a Ford Thunderbird convertible – all allegedly bought with illegal proceeds.

Authorities also seized the contents of two bank accounts.

Crundwell was among the nation’s top horse breeders. Her ranch produced 52 world champions, according to the American Quarter Horse Association in Amarillo, Texas, the world’s largest equine breed registry and membership organization.

The U.S. Marshals Service sold 80 of Crundwell’s horses earlier this month during an online auction, with plans of using the $1.64 million in proceeds to cover caring for the animals since May. The more than 300 remaining horses will be sold during a live and Web simulcast auction Sunday and Monday, with those proceeds to be held in escrow.

Dixon, the prosecutor, said Crundwell has cooperated with authorities, and “have absolutely no belief that she has squirreled money away,” hiding it from seizure by the U.S. government.

Calls to Crundwell’s home in Dixon went unanswered. Henry Dixon, the prosecutor, said he was unaware of whether she has an attorney on the state charges.

Her public defender in the federal case, Paul Gaziano, declined to comment Thursday.

Dixon said he remains confident the indictment’s charges won’t need to be put on trial elsewhere because of the broad publicity the case has drawn.

“This case has gotten a lot of national attention, so people who live in Cook County, St. Clair County (in downstate Illinois) or wherever has heard as much about it as the farmer on the east end of this county,” he said. “I don’t think that’s much of an issue.”

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